December 26, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Mike Duran #2 – Ten Ways Writing Short Stories Can Benefit Aspiring Novelists

I have never seen Mike Duran. We “met” online a couple years ago because of a little…altercation I caused by saying something less-than-nice about Christian speculative fiction on his blog. Mike, being both a spec-fic writer and editor, won me closer to his side with gentle and wise words. Since then I’ve found that Mike has lots of gentle and wise words. I’m looking at how some of them have had an impact on my own writing in these WRITING ADVICE posts. (Quotes are used with his permission.) He also participates in “ONE OF WRITER'S DIGEST 101 MOST VALUABLE WEBSITES FOR WRITERS, 2008 & 2010”, NOVEL JOURNEY at Check him out, he really is THAT good!

I agree with Mike and all those who commented on this one. In fact, despite the statement that there seems to be a controversy/discussion about whether or not “A novelist should write NOVELS!”, there wasn’t any controversy here. David Brin might argue the point – his first publication was the novel SUNDIVER and though he has written stories since and now writes short essays for a living, he started his career with full-blown novels.

On the other hand, I have seen specfic writers who have never left short stories even though they tried. Their novels, when they produced them, were either collections of a series of short stories that filled a story arc (David R. Palmer’s EMERGENCE comes to mind) or their novel wasn’t as strong as their short fiction (Jeffrey D. Kooistra’s DYKSTRA’S WAR) while others never wrote a novel and seem to have spent their career in short stories (Michael Burstein is the author I think of here).

To add to this chorus of agreement, I add my own two cents:

First Cent) Jesus never spoke in novels. He spoke in parables (short stories with a moral point). He spoke in parables on purpose, because most people of his time didn’t read; if they did read, they read Scripture or proclamations. Besides, they just didn’t have time for anything longer! (Does this sound like a people you’re familiar with?)

Second Cent) God wrote in short stories as well. The Bible is a series of 66 “books”, though by today’s definition, The Book of Jonah could be considered FLASH fiction at 1276 words (New American Standard Bible © 1960-1995 The Lockman Foundation). Later monks went further still, breaking down the narrative into little, teeny verses (for easier reference, I’m sure, but it STILL makes it easier in my head to stop after reading Jonah 1…)

I COULD say, “If short stories are good enough for God and Jesus, they’re good enough for me!”

But I won’t say that. I’ll simply agree with Mike Duran (and the other commentators) and add my two cents above. BTW – no matter how good short stories are, I am STILL trying to market all of my novels because novels, more correctly the royalties paid on novels, are how writers can financially survive.

Though once a novel is written and published, it makes it far more difficult for an author to break out of the mold and write something “new”. I know of at least one author who has changed their name to get away from a “fantasy branding” issue in order to get back to their first love, science fiction. I know at least one who wrote novels – both critically acclaimed, award-winning and genre bending as well as the “wrong” novelization. That author has been unable and/or unwilling to get out from under that cloud of expectation to a) please write ANOTHER ONE like… b) oh no, you’ll just write ANOTHER ONE like…

Link to the original article here:


December 19, 2010

Slice of PIE: Maybe We Are NOT What We Believe…

(This is NOT a Slice...sorry...)

“‘But surely,’ said Virtue, ‘these things were not the less his own because he learned them from others.’

“‘He did not learn them. He learned only catchwords from them. He could talk like Epicurus of spare diet, but he was a glutton. He had from Montaigne the language of friendship, but no friend. He never read one ode of Horace seriously in his life. And for his Rabelais, he can quote, “Do what you will”. But he has no notion that Rabelais gave that liberty to his Thelamites on the condition that they be bound by Honor, and for this reason alone free from laws positive.’” from CS Lewis, THE PILGRIM’S REGRESS, Book Ten, Chapter 2

I bought this book twenty-four years ago and started reading it this past October. It’s been hard going – Lewis’ book is the story of his own journey from childhood faith to adult faith. It’s written in the style of 17th Century author, John Bunyan, who wrote PILGRIM’S PROGRESS.

Lewis’ book contains such convoluted phrases as: “He knew now that he was praying…In a sense he said, Spirit is not I, I am it, but I am not the whole of it. When I turn back from the part of it which is not I – that far greater part which my soul does not exhaust – surely that part is to me the Other.” (Book 8, Chapter 4) and impenetrable paragraphs as: “I cannot agree with notions about the other side of the canyon but just because he relegates his delusions to the other side, he is free to agree with me about this side and to be an implacable exposer (like myself) of all attempts to foist upon us any transcendental, romantical, optimistic trash…he canalizes all the mystical nonsense – the sehnsucht and Wanderlust and Nympholepsy…” (Book 6, Chapter 2)

I have a plan to write a book for today that does what these men did for the 17th and the early 20th Centuries called PILGRIM’S EXCESS and it will serve the same purpose as Bunyan’s and Lewis’ works did but take place in the City rather than a “land” and address issues we face today – and show how my own journey looks as allegory…

But that’s not my issue today – I take exception with the Church. I launch my arrows at the deflector shield protecting the Lutheran Church in particular as I have been a baptized member since shortly after my fifth birthday (…it’s a long story, don’t ask) and was confirmed, worked in and promoted the theology of Luther ever since.

The problem is that the vast majority of Lutherans know NOTHING of Luther’s theology. In fact, I have a notion that if we were to attach a drive shaft to Luther’s feet in his grave for ten minutes, the speed at which he is spinning would generate enough electrical power to light all of North America at Christmas for a year.

The vast majority of Lutherans don’t understand the Small Catechism nor the Large Catechism. In fact, my experience with several hundred standard Lutheran pastors is that most of them have no idea what Luther did, wrote or intended. They stand on an interpretation of Lutheranism that requires little thought and is easily adjusted to fit into the standard, American, plastic, pluralistic cultural relativism that masquerades as cultural sensitivity and relevance.

Let me point out an example from the Small Catechism, the best known of Luther’s works and the one that a few Lutheran Churches still have their confirmands read and memorize: “The Second Article of the Apostle’s Creed – [I believe] in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. Luther asks ‘What does this mean?’ It means that I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death; that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness; just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

In 1970 (Sept. 11 issue), Christianity Today published a survey that revealed that the virgin birth is denied by 60 percent of Methodists, 49 percent of Presbyterians, 44 percent of Episcopalians, 34 percent of American Baptists, and 19 percent of American Lutherans. A more recent, 1998 poll shows that these numbers not only reflect the congregation but the pastoral leadership as well.

If one in five Lutherans and their pastors don’t believe in the Virgin Birth of the Christ – and a Barna Research Group poll indicates that the Virgin Birth is the MOST believed story in the Bible – then what ELSE do they imply they believe in by being Lutherans…but don’t really think it’s necessary to believe in?

Convoluted? Hmmm, yes. To put it more succinctly: If a person doesn’t accept what Luther WROTE in the Small Catechism (intended for children) or the Large Catechism (intended for pastors and leaders), then leave and join a church that DOES proclaim what you believe!

I find it offensive when members of the Lutheran Church try to change, water down or ignore parts of Luther’s writing by saying, “Oh, that was then, what he would have written NOW is…” or “We need to bring the Lutheran Church into the 21st Century! We need to be more relevant!”

I think Luther had something to say about that, too: “How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.”

A larger question still that bothers me though is how many Christians conform to the Nicene Creed? How many Christians – especially Evangelicals – even know WHAT the Nicene Creed is? If you don’t know, why not? It IS a document that unified the Church’s theology starting in 325 AD. Yet the Wikipedia article states that it means nothing to the Evangelical Church; only the liturgical church! Does this mean that Evangelicals can believe whatever they want to believe? Most of them say, “We believe God’s Word!” Cool – but don’t they mean “We believe our interpretation of God’s Word!”? Otherwise we wouldn’t have the Baptist Church, the Evangelical Free Church, the Christian Missionary Alliance and a plethora of “independents”…Questions for a later blog, I guess.

Your thoughts?



A different blog I always read and occasionally write for has a short essay by me about why I write. If you're interested:

December 16, 2010

A SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH 20: July 10, 1946-July 11, 1946

This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So I added some imaginary elements and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom.

That night, Charlie introduced Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill to his dad – Charlie’s mom had died two years earlier from pneumonia, it was just the two of them ran the former dairy farm. Fairlaine’s Creamery, aka, Charlie and his dad, thought that having two extra sets of hands around the place would be the best thing since sliced bread.

Tommy hastily added, “We gotta head up to Duluth though. My aunt and uncle are expecting us.”

Mr. Fairlaine nodded slowly, eyeing the boys. He said, “You boys ain’t in any trouble, are you? Anything I should worry about? Tangled up with mobsters or witches or socialists or anything like that?”

Eyes wide, both boys shook their head, Freddie with both hands behind his back and Tommy with one hand back and one hand in a sling.

Mr. Fairlaine grunted then lifted his chin to Charlie, “Keep ‘em busy, but don’t let Tommy hurt his hand any more. My brother’ll kill me if I let his little project get hurt.” Then he’d gone into the main house, leaving the three boys in the barn with a small herd of cows and the huge milk tanks where the raw milk was stored.

Freddie blurted, “What project is your dad talking about?”

Charlie rolled his eyes and started across the barn, picking up a hose and turning on the water. It trickled out of the mouth. He said, “Uncle Chris is always patching up the poor and the lost and sending ‘em to us to take care of.”

Tommy exclaimed, “We ain’t lost! We’re on our way to Duluth!”

“Where in Duluth? Dad and I drive there every other day with the milk truck. We deliver mostly to the creamery there, but we sell to smaller places, too. I know Duluth like I know the back of my hand.” He turned and started spraying down one of the tanks.

Tommy looked at Freddie who looked at Charlie. Finally Tommy said, “I’m gonna find my mom and dad’s families.”

Charlie didn’t look at them, but said loudly, “Do your mom and dad’s family’s have last names?”

Freddie shook his head when Tommy looked at him. Charlie turned around, taking his finger off the end of the hose so the water just dribbled from the hose again rather than spurting all over the boys. Tommy pursed his lips then said, “My dad’s family are named Hastings; Mom’s uncle was Herbert Towne.”

Charlie’s eyes grew wide, then he covered the end of the hose again, turning just before he sprayed the boy’s feet and said, “Don’t let Dad hear you say that name on this farm – or you might end up with a shotgun barrel up your ass.”


December 12, 2010


I’ve shoveled the driveway six times in the past two days.

After digging out from the “Sixth Worst Blizzard In Minnesota History!”, we are facing several days of sub-zero temperatures (-10 F) and brutal wind chills (ranging from -15 to -40). It started me wondering why no one has ever attempted to write a hard science fiction novel set on a world with a biology, ecology and sociology that would match Frank Herbert’s and Brian Herbert & Kevin Anderson’s DUNE books.

Not that we aren’t happy sending our heroes TO snow worlds! Luke Skywalker nearly died on the drifts of Hoth and Captain Kirk was almost eaten on the ice fields of Delta Vega in one time line and sentenced to prison on the Klingon ice moon of Rura Penthe in another.

Ursual K. LeGuin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS takes place on Winter or Gethe and while the world is certainly cold and dreary, the planet serves as metaphor to support her exploration of human sexuality, rather than representing a “real” world.

CJ Mills (a former Minnesotan) also created Winter World – though it seemed her intent there was to form a chilly backdrop for steamy romance and hot-blooded intrigue. More recently, Catherine Asaro used the world of Skyfall for the same purpose – done well, but really not much more than backdrop.


I have two theories. The first is that a winter world is BOR-ing! Everyone has snow. Everyone’s been in a blizzard. Ice is something you put in drinks. Northern animals are mostly dull (though moose are kinda cool, reindeer gave rise to Rudolph and polar bears rock). Santa’s about the only exciting thing to come out of the Poles, and that’s only one night a year. Polar societies are also “primitive” (I’m reading GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL by Jared Diamond, so I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek) and there’s nothing war-mongering about Inuit in kayaks spearing narwhals. Besides, everyone knows what goes on under the blankets on cold winter nights…certainly nothing worth writing SERIOUS science fiction about.

Deserts on the other hand, have always fascinated us with their mystery. Say desert and you think of Bedoins, Lawrence of Arabia, Queen Nefertiti and King Tut and the Pyramids of Egypt!

Say arctic and you think of snowshoe hares, blubber chewing, mushing and eating sticks of butter for breakfast. Hardly the stuff of major fiction and certainly not interesting enough to get a film option.

The other theory though intrigues me and what started as a small bug has grown into the beginning of a collection of notes and a name: Sirmiq. It’s an Inuit word for “glacier”. Sirmiq will be the name of a world I have in mind to build. It will be an exceedingly difficult job.

That’s why I don’t think anyone has really tried before. It’s too hard. For one thing, it’s impossible to have life evolve in such a cold place, right? You need black smokers or boiling lava or something else to provide the energy to drive evolution. Life can’t EVOLVE in a place like that! You need heat to drive the passion that makes story!


Lemme see, I’ll grant that you need insolation or radiation or geothermals and liquid water as well as basic elements and minerals to drive the formation of amino acids…but what if it happened even more slowly that it happened here? What if, at lower temperatures all that stuff still happened, just at a slower pace? What would happen to higher life forms that evolved from the slower-paced unicellular life? Is slower necessarily bad – AIDS is not a “fast” disease and doesn’t manifest itself in outward symptoms until it’s nearly too late to do anything about it. What if every life form was like that?

See, I think to do this – for me to create SIRMIQ – I’ll need to do a James Michener. In CENTENNIAL, he started the novel with the formation of Earth and the Rockies and ended with a man born of the people who had lived in that land for tens of thousands of years. Frank Herbert worked for five years researching and writing DUNE and published two shorter versions in ANALOG. Unable to interest the usual science fiction publishers like Ace, Ballantine, or Berkeley in the whole thing, he was finally accepted by the publishers of CHILTON’S car repair manuals!

I’ve only just begun research, but it’s promising. I’ve written a couple of experimental stories on Sirmiq, but neither one has sold, though one, “The Stars Like Nails” has evolved from one kind of story into something totally different and I have yet to write that "new" story. I have a clear image though: a man sitting on an ice block; across from him an old Inuit woman in a tent; between them, a body on a long block of ice; to one side, the wing of a shuttlecraft shelters them all from heavily falling snow. I think I know where it’s going…

What do you think is the reason we don’t have a cold world on par with DUNE – too boring or too difficult?

Me? I’m opting that no one’s had the guts to really try it!


December 5, 2010

WRITING ADVICE – Mike Duran 1: Good Writing Is Not Subjective

I have never seen Mike Duran. We met a couple years ago because of a little…altercation I caused by saying something less-than-nice about Christian speculative fiction on his blog. Mike, being both a spec-fic writer and editor, won me closer to his side with gentle and wise words. Since then I’ve found that Mike has lots and lots of gentle and wise words. I’m going to be looking at how some of them have had an impact on my own writing in the next ten WRITING ADVICE posts. I strongly suggest you head on over to Mike’s Christian Speculative Fiction and Other Stuff blog called deCOMPOSE at (Quotes are used with his permission.) He also participates in “ONE OF WRITER'S DIGEST 101 MOST VALUABLE WEBSITES FOR WRITERS, 2008 & 2010”, NOVEL JOURNEY at Check him out, he really is THAT good!

I know I can write.

As much as a whine and cry (at least in my head), I know I can write for publication. I have a string of forty-two short stories, articles, a play, six puppet shows, and a book of children’s sermons that has been out for twelve years. I have two short stories that were recently published and two science articles in major children’s magazines coming out in Jan/Feb and June 2011.

I know I can write.

My biggest challenge though, can be summed up in Mike’s words here: “There is a difference between good writing and good storytelling. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald one of his literary masters, adept at the art of myth-making. But in the preface to MacDonald’s LILITH, Lewis writes, ‘Few of his novels are good and none is very good.’ Huh? You see, Lewis made a distinction between the craft of writing and the creation of Story. Stylistically, MacDonald was average. His expertise, however, was in telling stories. Likewise, you must make a distinction between the technical elements of writing and the essential story being told. ‘Good writing’ may be either or both, but it can’t be neither.”

In my writing, I struggle with story telling. I can do it write – I have the pedigree to prove that I can. But I have been unable to do it consistently. I’ve had more stories rejected lately than accepted, and I’ve been entirely unable to find an agent for any of the three novels I’ve been shopping around. I’m not ready to give up yet. That won’t happen for a while, because I really like the books. But I am hounded by the possibility that I haven’t told the story well.

I know I can tell a good story verbally. I would never have made it as a teacher if I couldn’t, because a major tenet of teaching is telling good stories – though not necessarily fictional stories. I can tell a whopping tale of Sir Isaac Newton’s invention of his three laws. I can do a stirring tale of how architecture is affected by culture and how calculations of pressure and force allowed the building of the World Trade Center in New York and how physics brought it down as well. I can do that so consistently that I’ve been teaching science in a classroom for thirty years.

I just can’t do fiction consistently. That is the skill I am working on now – telling a CONSISTENTLY GOOD STORY.

The whole purpose of this blog is to solicit your opinions about the success or failure of my quest. Good writing is objectively judged by editors and readers. Good writing can be GRADED and I’ve been doing that for thirty years.

So – how’m I doing?

To read Mike’s entire post, “Good Writing is NOT Subjective”, go here:


December 2, 2010


I read the play version of Daniel Keyes’ FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON when I was in eighth grade. It has stayed with me for decades, a haunting symbol for both the overwhelming possibilities of the human intellect and the overwhelming impossibilities faced by a profoundly challenged human mind. I’ve started and stopped this novel a half a dozen times in eleven years. I want to bring the original idea into the present millennium. To read RECONSTRUCTION from beginning to here, click on the label to the right and scroll to the bottom.

The Junior High Mathematics League Tournament was exactly like the senior high version. “Only lamer,” muttered Job Doe, CJ Hastings’ best friend.

“Don’t let Coach Bates hear you say that,” said Sentury Millner, smartest girl in eighth grade and the only person on the team who REALLY didn’t like CJ. “Or he’ll kick Christopher off the team.” She gave him a vulpine smile – vulpine meant carnivorous, fox, like she wanted to eat him alive and then she sauntered away to talk to Mr. Bates.

Job glared after her and muttered, “She thinks she’s so smart.” She cut through the cafeteria. The first round of the Tournament – a test with fifteen questions that got harder and harder as they went on. The competitors were waiting for the first round posting. They were supposed to be eating lunch, but so far most of what they’d done was sit at tables and stand in lines leading to the food.

CJ looked at him and then at her and said softly, “Uh…she is.” Job glared at him, stood up and stalked away. CJ said, “But she is!”

He stood up and went to stand in line. Sighing, he knelt down to tie his shoe. A pair of pink Converse All-Stars suddenly appeared standing toes to his toe. He stood up and nearly fell over backward. Jude Hildebrandt was standing so close he had to step away. She was smiling her gigantic, metallic smile as she said, “Hi! Can I wait in the lunch line with you?”

“It’s not exactly lunch,” he said. Over Jude’s shoulder, a black man dressed in black, wearing a skinny tie and sunglasses was facing him.

Jude looked over her shoulder, then back at him. “Somebody said the governor’s kid is here at the Tournament. That’s why the secret agents are here.”

“Secret Service,” CJ said automatically. “It’s the Secret Service that protects the President and the Governor.”

She flicked the correction away and said, “So, how’d you think you did? Has Mr. Bates’ new reading method helped at all?”

CJ rolled his eyes. Coach had sat him down yesterday to listen to a series of CDs about reading better. He was so excited about the possibilities of helping CJ read better, CJ didn’t have the heart to tell him that his sister had done the job already.

But it DID give him an excuse to read better. The test had been a breeze. Last year he’d almost thrown up on the paper when he got it. Job had helped him by using a system of sign language to help. Even so, it had been almost impossible. He’d done fine in the middle round – but that was just for fun. He’d bombed the final exam.

He didn’t expect to blow it this year. In fact, if he wasn’t careful and pretend he couldn’t read as well as he could…

He opened his mouth to reply to her when one of the Secret Service agents cut into the line right in front of him. “Hey!” Jude exclaimed.

The agent glared down at her, lifting his glasses to direct his laser beam eyes at her. Jude closed her lips over her braces, turned and hurried away. He turned around, and fixed CJ with the same glare. He said suddenly, “How much did you hate your sister?”

“What?” CJ exclaimed.

“It would be easy for a strapping young stud like you to murder your little sister and stuff her into a garbage bin somewhere.”

“Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know – why don’t you tell me,” he said, lifting his glasses with a broad, thick callused index finger.

“I didn’t kill Mai!” His voice caught in his throat and he managed, “I love her…” He spun away from the agent and marched back to the table. His stomach rumbled, but it wasn’t just because he was hungry. He felt suddenly like he wanted to cry. Why? Nothing had changed – except that Mai was a super-hyper-genius-babe, she hated him and Mom, she wanted revenge – and he might never see her again.

From the far end of the cafeteria, someone walked out with a trumpet and blew on it – pretty badly, CJ thought. Another person announced, “The Tests have been scored! Prepare for the Major Event!”

The mob of junior high and middle school kids surged toward the trumpet, and CJ suddenly found himself alone.



November 28, 2010

Slice of PIE: “We Don’t Pray About Eclipses…”

I am a fan of CS Lewis’ writing.

If this surprises you, then you haven’t been to my blog very often! Even so, I have spent years reading through his works. Of COURSE, I started with CHRONICLES OF NARNIA when I was about thirteen. My great-aunt Leola Danielson and her husband Ed (who smoked a pipe and snored like a Mac truck without a muffler) had to hold the place of my grandparents for most of my life because my real grandparents lived in California and never came to Minnesota. They also loved Jesus and held Him as Lord and Savior and spent time evangelizing all of us kids. In my case, that began when Aunty Lula (what we called her) let me take the hardcover copy of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE home to read and eventually to keep.

Since then, I’ve read one massive biography about Lewis as well as uncounted articles and as many of his writings as I could handle (I have never tried his literary criticism!).

Several months ago, I read LETTERS TO MALCOLM.

You should know this about me: when I read anything non-fiction, I take notes. Not copious notes (unless I’m planning a review or planning on using the book for some other purpose), but enough so that I can take at least ONE thing from it. After reading LETTERS, I discovered that it was fiction – and I here I had written down three things from it as take-aways!



“Lewis” in the book, wrote to his young friend “Malcolm”, the following sentence: “We don’t pray about eclipses…”

I am sure it was embedded in a deeper discussion, but the rest of it wasn’t what struck me. It wasn’t what had staying power with me. The rest of the paragraph or conversation was not the hammer that made the bell in my head resonate and spark other ideas and thoughts.

This phrase did a couple of things for me. It made me realize that the only things I pray about are the things that are uncertain. In addition to NOT praying about eclipses, I don’t pray about my heartbeat (though some people DO); I do not pray about sunrise; I do not pray about temperatures (though some people DO); I also do not pray about ocean depth, Solar fusion, fingernail growth, the stability of my houses’ foundation, Christmas tree lights, grass growth, deer populations, the flow of electricity through high tension power lines, gasoline combustion, Interstate concrete, the composition of salt remaining constant, the Periodic Table of the elements, or whether the Universe is expanding at a significant portion of the speed of light.

Why DON’T I pray for those things in addition to eclipses?

I believe CS Lewis used hyperbole to make a point: God will take care of eclipses. They don’t require our prayerful intervention to happen. We simply assume that God is taking care of those things. By implication though, I need to trust that He is taking care of the smaller details: Liz’s strength, Mary’s living arrangements for next semester, Josh’s job, Laura’s education, Noah and my parent’s health and my writing career.

The Bible has said this eloquently already in Matthew 6: 27-29: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.”

Lewis reiterates it for a “space age”, the age in which he was living.

The age in which I live.

This holiday season, I promise (I can’t make a vow!) to rest more completely in the care of the Savior whose birth and promise we now intensely celebrate!


November 25, 2010


This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So I added some imaginary elements and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom.

Tommy Hastings curled around his hand and moaned. A second later, he went limp.

Freddie Merrill screamed, “He’s dead!”

Charlie, who was almost eighteen rolled his eyes and hopped up on the flatbed truck and put his hand on Tommy’s chest, looked up at Freddie and said, “He’s not dead. He’s just out cold.” He frowned. “But I think he busted his hand.

“What?” Freddie exclaimed. He looked down at Tommy and then back to Charlie and shouted, “This is all your fault!” He lunged at Charlie, but the other boy was not only older, but quicker. He sidestepped, tripping Freddie, but snagging the back of his pants and holding him up instead of letting him fall face-first into the heavy, full milk cans. Hauling the younger boy back, Charlie said, “We’ll take him to my uncle.”

“What? He the sheriff?” Freddie said, “You gonna get us arrested?”

Charlie frowned. “No, Uncle Chris is a doctor in McGregor.”

“Where’s that?”

“Forty miles from here.”

“What?” Freddie exclaimed. “How we gonna get there? What if Tommy dies before we get there? What am I gonna tell his dad?” He paused and his eyes got big as saucers. His voice a hoarse whisper, he said, “What am I gonna tell my dad?”

Charlie snorted and jumped from the truck. “You stay here with your buddy. We gotta stop in Glen to unload the milk then we’ll go see my uncle.”

“How long’s that gonna take?”

The truck roared to life again. Charlie stood up and shouted over the rumble, “First we gotta drop the milk off. That’ll go faster if you help.” Freddie nodded slowly, kneeling down beside Tommy. Charlie added, “Give it a half hour.” He dropped into the truck and this time when it started, Freddie noticed how smooth the older boy was in his driving the rest of the way.

Uncle Chris was a kindly old man who had a surgery in his house and muttered while he looked Tommy’s hand over. “If I had an x-ray machine, I could take a picture…stupid machines! I’ve been practicing medicine for forty years and I’ve never needed an x-ray machine before this!” His hands were strong and he held Tommy’s hand firmly, but he didn’t let the boy get away with grunts. “No, you have to tell me if this really hurts. Don’t be a fool like your old man and pretend it doesn’t. If you’ve really broken something and it doesn’t heal right, you’ll be a cripple by the age of eighteen and need a major amputation – probably from the neck down – by the time you’re twenty!”

In the corner, Charlie grinned.

Tommy’s eyes bugged out and Freddie near fainted away, but Tommy cooperated after that, wincing and “ouching” appropriately through the rest of the exam.

Finally Uncle Chris stepped back, held his chin with his left hand and his left elbow with his right hand. He hummed, scowled then said, “It’s not broken as far as I can tell.” Tommy looked at him like he wasn’t sure whether he should cheer or protest.

Charlie cheered then bit his lower lip when his uncle cast him a wicked mean look.

“It hurts worse than anything that’s ever happened to me!” Tommy finally said.

Uncle Chris nodded. “You bruised it – all the way down to and including the bone. How’d it happen?”

Charlie, Tommy and Freddie shot wild looks all around until Uncle Christ snorted. “I see how it is.” He looked at Charlie, “I’m sure it has nothing to do with Charlie’s driving too fast. If it did, I’d have to talk to my brother again and I can guarantee he wouldn’t be very happy to hear something like this from me.”

Freddie exclaimed, “He didn’t do anything, Doctor Chris! Please don’t tell his dad!”

Two young men and one old man stared at Freddie, who flushed scarlet. Uncle Chris nodded slowly then picked up a wide roll of gauze and slowly wrapped Tommy’s hand then hung the hand in a sling, saying, “You can’t use it for at least a week.”

“A week!” all three boys exclaimed at once.

Uncle Chris nodded slowly. “If you do, it might actually break a bone – and then all the things I predicted might easily happen.” He fixed each boy with a dark gaze, one after another. “I think you two should stay with Charlie and my brother while Tommy’s hand heals.”

“A week?” Tommy said in a small voice.

“A whole week?” said Charlie in an even smaller voice.

“A week,” Uncle Chris said and added, “As long as you don’t want to become a cripple?” Tommy shook his head fast. Charlie did the same as did Freddie. “You can tell my brother you’re traveling to see family in Duluth.”

Tommy blinked in surprise then nodded.


November 21, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Hurried People and the Half-Time Sprint

Every morning on the way to work, driving at or near the posted speed limit, I am passed by cars sprinting five to ten miles per hour faster than I am. Sometimes these people weave in and out of traffic. Sometimes they lay on the horn at me, as if I am the sole cause of their need to hurry.

Putting aside my own level of irritating and conveniently overlooking the fact that some people drive the speed limit just to bug other drivers, I find myself wondering if going five or ten miles per hour over the speed limit really makes a difference. On the other hand, is going those few miles an hour like a sorcerer’s stone going to work a wizardly miracle of arriving on time to work despite leaving my house late?

To find out if wizardry is possible in this case, I turn to the science of physics. The following simple algebraic equation is something every ninth grader who comes through my science class will learn first semester: the speed of a [car] is equal to the distance [the car travels] divided by the time [it takes to reach your destination]. More simply; s=d/t.

But that’s not relevant here. We want to find out if TIME will get less if my speed is faster. Simple. We rearrange the equation getting [the] time [it takes to get somewhere] is equal to [the] distance [you go] divided by [the] speed [you go]. Again, more simply: t=d/s.

To get the results, we simply plug numbers in. We need to establish something here though. I need to know how fast I drive to work. There are nine stoplights and stop signs on my way to the school I teach at; the speed limit also varies over that distance (which remains a constant eight miles.) So I FIRST need to calculate my average speed. To do that, I’ll also tell you that on a usual morning, it take me twenty minutes to get to work. To do this right, I have to say that twenty minutes is 1/3 of an hour. In decimal, that’s .33 of a hour. So, to math:

s= d/t = 8 miles / .33 hours = 25 miles in an hour (or 25 mph). So my AVERAGE speed, stoplights and different speed limits and all is 25 mph. Now we can get down to business!

Let’s say I bump up my speed 5 mph to an average of 30 mph (which means ROUGHLY that in the SPEED LIMIT 30 zone I drive 35 and SPEED LIMIT 35 zone, I drive 40. HOW MUCH TIME WILL I SAVE?

t = d/s = 8 miles / 30 mph = .27 (remember, that’s .27 of an hour, so I have to times it by 60 minutes: .27 x 60 = 16.2 minutes. Speeding 5 mph faster, I magically save 3.8 minutes! WHEW! What a shave! Hmmm…not what I was hoping for.

All right! How about I get serious here? TEN mph faster! Move my average speed up to 40 (consistently 15 mph over the posted speed limit.)

S=d/t=8 mi/ 40 mph = .2 x 60 = 12 minutes! There we go! I’ve saved EIGHT ENTIRE MINUTES OF MY TIME! (Of course, at those speeds, I’m likely to come to the attention of law enforcement authorities eventually and the ticket for speeding might negate some of the financial gain I receive by being to work consistently on time even though I leave late…)


How about greater distances? I used to go to college in Moorhead, MN. From Minneapolis to Moorhead is 233 miles. Driving the speed limit (which AVERAGES 65 mph including potty breaks, slow downs and yelling at the kids in the back seat…) s=d/t=233/65= 3.58 hours. Speed up to 80: s=d/t=233/80= 2.9 hours for a savings of 42 minutes. Of course, 80 mph is my AVERAGE speed. The “sometimes slow” translates out as potty breaks, so my typical highway full speed travel is roughly 90 mph. Which once again can translate into close encounters of the law enforcement type…)

How about REALLY long trips? I must save time there! NYC to LA: 2784 miles. s=d/t=2784 miles/70 mph = 40 hours.

Speed it up to 80 mph: s=d/t=2784/80 = 34.8 hours. I save 5.2 hours. Hmmm…OK, but not really impressive.

Let’s REALLY speed it up to an average speed of 100 mph: s=d/t=2784/100 = (obviously) 27.84 hours. Savings: 12 hours. Half a day. Maybe worth it, but I can’t imagine my Toyota Sienna van maintaining a steady speed of 100 mph. Plus traveling consistently at that speed seems likely to evoke a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT effect as I pass like a flash from county to county and state to state.

So the only wizardy that happens here is in my mind: I’ve convinced myself that driving a couple miles an hour faster will MAGICALLY and dramatically change the time it takes to get somewhere. I will SWEAR EMPHATICALLY that the above math can’t possibly be true and that I have had personal experience with the wizardry of driving just a little faster, cutting off just a few people and running just a few red lights and stoplights. I KNOW it makes me get to work on time if I leave late!

My only choices are to continue to test the theory until it fits my perceptions, apply to Hogwarts and put on the choosing cap – or slow down and take it easy.


November 14, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Nathan Bransford 10 – Once and Future Wisdom

Nathan Bransford was once a West Coast agent with the New York literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd. For nine years, he wrote a popular blog reflecting on and illuminating the publishing world. Humorous, serious and ultimately enlightening, I’ve looked at how THE ESSENTIALS (PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU QUERY) influenced my writing. I am using them with his permission and if you’d like to read his blog which has started to evolve but which I still highly recommend go to

We come now to the last three bits of advice, and while they are important, they aren’t really that entertaining! He collected a glossary of publishing terms:, a writing advice database:, and FAQs:

These are fine and dandy, and the links are here for your delectation, but I can’t say they had any impact on my writing. HOWEVER, I am going to take a bit of advice from this set of FAQ. I sincerely hope I need it someday. On meeting agents face-to-face, Bransford says:

“First up: don't be nervous. Seriously. I don't bite, attack, make fun, disparage, or karate chop…don't feel like your chances of being published are hinging on what you say. They're not. So don't be nervous…if we don't get a chance to speak, just e-mail me. I'm sitting in on a pitch session on Sunday, but other than that, it's not the best idea to pitch stuff to me verbally in the halls. Not because I'm not interested in what you're working on (I am), but I need to see the writing. What it sounds like verbally doesn't really matter, I'm always going to say the same thing: ‘e-mail it to me’. If it comes up in conversation, great. But if you're looking for me to say whether it's a good idea or not -- I won't really be able to tell for sure without seeing the writing. Also, the pitch session is a good opportunity to ask any questions you have about the industry or about your writing -- I'm happy to help!

After sending out dozens of “cold” query letters and receiving from every one a “no”, while all were polite, my impression is that I am merely one of thousands of supplicants at the altar of publishing. They don’t know me from Adam and while my letters are “correct”, they have obviously made only a minimal impression. I HAVE received a few “please send more” responses, but each one ended with a polite “no thank you”.


We don’t have the money to chase agents around at conferences across the country, and to be truthful, most do not invite agents at all. SCBWI in California (and in Minneapolis) does. WorldCon SF convention in whatever city hosts it does; but other than that, where DO you meet agents?

I’d really, really like to test Mr. Bransford’s advice as I can no longer approach him now. He has resigned from the agenting business to begin a career as a technology reviewer for CNET, an online tech review site. Good luck to him. I am keeping an eye on his site carefully to see if he is able to maintain the traffic level now that his services are no longer available.


November 11, 2010


I read the play version of Daniel Keyes’ FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON when I was in eighth grade. It has stayed with me for decades, a haunting symbol for both the overwhelming possibilities of the human intellect and the overwhelming impossibilities faced by a profoundly challenged human mind. I’ve started and stopped this novel a half a dozen times in eleven years. I want to bring the original idea into the present millennium. To read RECONSTRUCTION from beginning to here, click on the label to the right and scroll to the bottom.

Christopher Jon Hastings studied his mom as she drove. She was biting her lower lip, a sure sign she’d done something about which she was having second thoughts. He said, “What’s wrong, Mom?”

“You sister was pretty clear about neither of us going after her, right?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t say anything for a long time. CJ said again, “What’s wrong, Mom?”

“She’s the ‘super-hyper-major-genius-babe’, right? I’m just her adoptive mother. I can’t compete with her, but…”

“What’d you do, Mom?”

“I called a private investigator.”

CJ stared through the windshield as they drove home. He felt Mom look at him. When he finally spoke, he said, “Mr. Bates asked if I was gonna be on Math Team this weekend. It’s the final rounds of the district tournament.”

“And you said you’d be there?”

“Yeah. I didn’t think I was grounded any more.” He paused. “I’m trying not to do too good in school too suddenly now that I can read.’

Mom glanced at him, “It’s made that much difference?”

He nodded. “I get stuff now that I didn’t get last week. Some of it’s OK to learn. Like some of the stuff we’re doing in Civics seems OK, like government and stuff.” He glanced at Mom and caught her smiling. “Not like I’m gonna like school all of a sudden or nothing.”

She snorted softly then said, “So you think it’s OK I sent a private investigator after your sister?”

CJ shrugged. “I don’t know if anyone can find her if she doesn’t want to be found.”

“You found her when she ran the first time.”

He shrugged. “It was her first time. Now she knows what she’s doing and it won’t be so easy to catch her.” He paused. “Though I could probably find her.”

Mom pulled up the driveway once they reached home and got out. They didn’t speak until they were inside again. Then Mom said, “She may be a genius, but she’s still not that experienced. I’m going to leave the PI to find her – if he can.” She glanced at CJ a smiled grimly. “I’m still worried about her and now it sounds like she’s going to be breaking some real laws.”

“Yeah, but that douchebag Dr. Chazhukaran…”

“Christopher Jon!” Mom exclaimed.

“It’s what he is, Mom!” She pursed her lips and grunted. CJ continued, “Dr. Chaz-what’s-his-name isn’t the genius here. Mai Li is. He doesn’t stand a chance.”

Mom leaned back against the kitchen counter, staring off into space. Finally she said, “You’re probably right,” she glanced at him with a faint, mock scowl, “On all counts. But I’m going to leave the PI.”

“And you’re gonna let me got to the Math Team meet, too, right?”

She sniffed then said, “Yes.” CJ leaped and punched the air and was about to shout in victory when she added, “The attitude starts to change now.” His attitude stayed to same, when she added, “If nothing else, Mai Li taught you that you can change. She taught you to read in a few hours. You can change your attitude without her help.” CJ opened his mouth to protest when she cast a dark look at him. He closed his mouth. “You’re as smart as your sister is now in some ways. I expect you to start to show it.” Her eyes narrowed, “If you want to take the Math Team to the state championship.”

CJ’s eyes got bigger. They locked gazes for some time before he finally nodded and said softly, “Deal.”


When the PI showed up at the Math Team tournament, CJ was positive he’d never find Mai Li. He looked like a Secret Service agent standing at the back of the gym where the competition was taking place…


November 7, 2010

Slice of PIE: “Operation Annihilate”

One of my all-time favorite STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episodes has the same title as this blog entry. I’ve never been sure why I liked the episode, except that it was clearly filmed on location at some very futuristic looking college campus somewhere (actually, the Redondo Beach, CA aerospace HQ of the defunct TRW Corporation). To my young mind, it looked exactly as a colony on an alien world should look – neat, clean and full of people excited to be establishing a Human presence is space – with just enough alien threat to make it interesting.

Yet recently, the episode came to mind as a parable of my journey with the Holy Spirit. The “neural parasites” that attack the colony on Devena infiltrate the Human nervous system and force them to work for them by building ships so the hive can spread. When one of them attacks Spock and fills him with its nervous system, he must constantly fight to resist its directions to do the bidding of the hive mind.

This is a perfect metaphor for my struggles with the Holy Spirit.

I have surrendered to Jesus and experienced the infilling of the Holy Spirit. But God is NOT a slave driver. The Father and the Son are NOT a hive mind. They will NOT overwhelm me to destroy my free will. Instead, they remind me of their presence in every choice I make and they seek to influence me to do God’s will.

As Spock fights the alien hive’s influence, I know I struggle against the Holy Spirit’s influence. Oh, I stop at times, during worship, especially or when I’m down, want something from God, when I’m in over my head, I back off and let the Holy Spirit control me. I used to characterize it as my “struggle against Satan”.

I’ve recently come to realize that my struggles are not so noble. I struggle instead against the influence of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s words: “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 17: 22-25)

I’d always interpreted these words to be about my noble, righteous, God-loving, worthy struggle against sin and the power of evil. But I’ve learned that the Hebrews didn’t necessarily see the world as spirit on this side and flesh on that. Theirs was a world of unity. So even though Paul speaks as if the two are separate, his words might just as well refer to my vulgar, self-righteous, God-ambivalent, sin-crusted, struggle against God’s will and the Holy Spirit in my life.

My everyday danger is that I discover, like Spock, a way to destroy the influence of the alien; the Holy Spirit living in me.

Like Paul says in verse 13, “May it never be!”


October 31, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Grist for the Mill (Is that what we are?)

I’m reading a lot of stuff these days.

From UNCHRISTIAN: WHAT A NEW GENERATION THINKS ABOUT CHRISTIANITY AND WHY IT MATTERS by David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons; to a semi-current issue of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION (August 2010); to a very strange website called Purpose Drivel: Rantings on the drivel being proclaimed in the name of Christ (she has trouble with everyone’s message but her own, which I guess is the correct one); to friend blogs like The Friday Challenge and The Used Diaper Salesman; to blogs from various and sundry authors and editors and agents – in a effort to walk closer to Christ and be a part of proclaiming His Word.

My way of proclaiming is by writing and the grist (define: Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding. It can also mean grain that has been ground at a grist mill. Its etymology derives from the verb grind. for every story is what I read, hear and experience. Writing stories about alien worlds and not only making my characters realistic, but also letting them believe in Jesus Christ as risen Lord and King has become my mission. I know – it’s crazy, but I think that there will be Christians in space, on Mars, in the clouds of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as well as points beyond. I also believe those Christians will be essentially unchanged from the Christians of Jesus’ time.

HOWEVER, these Christians will be the type portrayed in…hmmm…I can’t think of any books off the top of my head. Catholic priests have played important roles in science fiction – from the single priest in the haunting borderline literary/SF novel by Mary Doria Russell, THE SPARROW and James Blish’s A CASE OF CONSCIENCE and a Mormon missionary was the viewpoint character in “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” in the September 2010 issue of ANALOG. But I can’t think of (or GOOGLE) a single reference showing an evangelical Christian in space whose story is portrayed in a specifically secular magazine or website.

The connection for all of this hit me last night as I lay in bed, not daring to move because I didn’t want my back to explode in excruciating pain: Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H. A Catholic priest, Father Mulcahy’s witness to Christ was unswerving and deeply committed. He did preach, he did lecture – but he also acted in a consistent, loving way in his everyday life. Though the focus of the series was on booze, cross-dressers, adulterers, liars, cheats, thieves and fornication, Father Mulcahy’s witness was always there. The only thing that never happened in the series’ eleven-year history was someone coming into a faith relationship with Christ. (Given the power of the Holy Spirit, I doubt that that would have occurred in real life, but that might be another story.)

While WE may not be sacrificially active in America today, “During the great plagues that swept Rome in the second century, all of the doctors fled, but the Christians stayed and took care of the sick. They embodied what Christians are called to do. Although many Christians died…pagans were drawn to Christ because they saw both the love of Christians and Christianity itself as a better way of life.” Chuck Colson (p 87, unChristian)

Corroboration: from THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY: A SOCIOLOGIST RECONSIDERS HISTORY by Rodney Stark ( “a series of devastating plagues played an instrumental role in the seemingly miraculous growth of the early church. In AD 165, and again in AD 251, terrifying epidemics descended upon the Roman Empire, killing between a quarter to a third of the population. Contemporary accounts describe widespread panic as family members abandoned their loved ones at the first sign of disease, sometimes tossing them into the roads even before they had died. As a result, many plague sufferers were left without food, water, and basic care that could have dramatically increased survival rates.

“Christians, however, soon gained a reputation for their boldness in the face of death…bishop Dionysius…described how Christians ‘showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.’ For these Christians, the epidemic became ‘a time of unimaginable joy,’ a chance for believers to witness to their faith by offering themselves as martyrs.

“It was Christian doctrine…that motivated believers’ courageous response to the terrors of the plague. While their non-Christian neighbors abandoned their beliefs and retreated in fear, Christians found their faith a source of comfort as well as a ‘prescription for action.’ They knew they were their ‘brothers’ keepers,’ that it was ‘more blessed to give than to receive,’ and that they ought to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ To further understand the radical claims of the Christian faith…Matthew 25:35-40: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…’ By loving one another sacrificially, Christians sought to reflect God’s own sacrificial love. Because they believed that God loved all humanity, they also believed that their own love must extend beyond family and tribe. These were revolutionary concepts at the time, and by taking these teachings to heart, early Christians earned a reputation even among their opponents for their radical loving-kindness.”

So – I need to continue to write Christian characters, but they need to be sacrificial Christians and have more in common with those Christians in Rome, the men in THROUGH GATES OF SPLENDOR and any other men and women who have willingly risked their lives for the sake of Christ in the past month.

Hmmm…more grist, indeed.

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